The unprecedented growth of web based travel sites means that more and more travellers now pay a virtual visit to their planned holiday destination before they ever leave the house. Websites, blogs and e-zines not only write detailed descriptions and travel guides, but also offer photo galleries and video clips that detail every possible aspect of a place, apparently leaving no doubt at all as to whether the sea views are unobstructed or the shower heads are clean. Beach scenes now seem to decorate the desktops in half the world’s offices and destination websites receive millions of hits every day as people dream of their next trip to paradise. But with the internet now so important as a planning tool for holidays or business trips, the battle to capture people’s online imagination is fierce. Everything from flights and hotels to hire cars, restaurants, even day trips can now be booked in advance through the web. This may seem like an advantage, but how well do all the images and opinions presented online match reality?
Trip Advisor® is undoubtedly the most powerful addition to the online travel scene in the last few years, and thanks to its popularity, personal accounts and reviews have largely taken over from the smooth marketing texts and strap lines of old. Instead of reading about pristine beaches and crimson sunsets, online travellers can now enjoy personal accounts of the lumpy mattresses, grumpy receptionists, and the occasional tasty club sandwich on the room service menu. Such detail and opinions certainly have their uses, but only if you can trust them. The problem with open access websites is that anyone can write a review, even the hotel owner himself. What’s worse, there’s no-one to check what mood the reviewer was in when they wrote their piece. It’s incredible how often the same place is described as awful by one writer and exceptional by another, which basically leaves you to make your own judgements by sifting through the comments and applying a little armchair psychology to decide which of the contributors were or weren’t mentally disturbed.
Twitter® is also becoming a personalised guide to the globe, but seems plagued with similar personality disorders (although at least with only 140 characters to express themselves, the pain is brief). Then, or course, there’s Facebook®, probably the most popular social networking site for hospitality providers. Lets face it, few people really want to tell their friends (or friends of friends) what a disappointing holiday, meal or party they just had. Even if it’s true.
So how do people actually use these travel sites and online media portals? Do they believe every recommendation they read? Will they book for two weeks based on a nice photo? Research suggests the process is generally much more complex with people using a combination of online resources to make their choices, collecting valuable snippets along the way and balancing opinion with facts. Even visuals are not always the acid test. As anyone who’s ordered from a fast food restaurant will tell you, the photos on the menu rarely match the food on the plate. Web designers are so skilled in image manipulation nowadays that a picture can hide a thousand unwritten words. But then there’s always word of mouth. The internet is awash with comprehensive descriptions, personal recommendations, holiday snaps and video records, the only problem being that on balance they tend to cancel each other out. A cursory glance through the average Trip Advisor® list often leaves you torn between booking immediately and writing a letter of complaint in advance, and with a world of eclectic tastes to consider, one man’s palace may be another man’s dungeon.